By Les Christie
The film emperor may be striking back. For 25 years, filmmaker George Lucas tried to persuade his Marin County, Calif., neighbors to let him build a digital production studio on his ranch there, but the area's residents thwarted the plan.
So Lucas has come up with an alternative for his Grady Ranch property: To build low-income housing on it.
In a letter posted online, Lucasfilm wrote, "It is with great sadness that Skywalker Properties has decided to pull its application to build a studio facility.
Instead, the maker of some of the biggest box office successes of all time, including the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" franchises, intends to sell the property to the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), a nonprofit that has already funded more than 2,500 units of affordable housing and will explore options for developing Grady Ranch.
Lucas had applied to the county planning commission for permits to build a 260,000 square-foot compound that would be used as a digital media production studio. The company claimed that the facilities would create about 600 high-paying jobs.
"The level of bitterness and anger expressed by the homeowners in Lucas Valley has convinced us that, even if we were to spend more time and acquire the necessary approvals, we would not be able to maintain a constructive relationship with our neighbors," Lucasfilm said in its statement.
Search Millions of Home Listings View photos of homes for sale and apartments for rent See Homes for Sale See Rental Listings Opposition to the plan has come mainly from residents of nearby homes represented by the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association, and from real estate developer Thomas Monahan, who owns a big property next to the Grady Ranch. The association did not respond to a request for comment and Monahan declined to comment.
The homeowners objected to several aspects of the project, according to Mary Feller, a member of a nearby homeowners association who attended many of the planning commission meetings. Among the concerns were traffic, noise and an outdoor stage that would be lit until 11:00 p.m.
Feller said that the Marin Conservation League also raised environmental objections, particularly when it came to plans for the disposal of dirt and rocks that would be excavated for the project. The conservation league did not respond to a request for comment.
Not all of Lucas Valley's residents were voting against the filmmaker, however. "The loss of that project is a major blow to the community," said Dale Miller, an area resident. "It would have provided a lot of jobs."
Land to build on in the Lucas Valley area -- which was named after a 19th century rancher, not the 20th century filmmaker -- is rare thanks to strict "smart growth" policies that limits the building of new homes. These policies encourage building in higher density areas while keeping undeveloped land open. As a result, much of Marin has been set aside for parks and recreational areas.
With the housing supply artificially compressed, home prices are high there. The median home price has hovered around $700,000 lately, according to Fred Silverman, a spokesman for the MCF.
"Affordability is so bad that many people, even with moderate income, can't afford to live here," he said.
It may seem as if the affordable housing project is a way for Lucas to stick it to his opposition, but Tom Peters, the CEO of the Marin County Foundation disagrees. "I know Lucas and checked with him on that point personally and directly. It was essential that I was convinced that it was not done out of spite. I would not have accepted the project if I thought it was," he said.
Back in the late 1970s, when Lucas was planning Skywalker Ranch, a studio about 10 miles west of Grady Ranch, he ran into similar opposition from homeowners. Local residents "feared helicopters landing with celebrities and tour buses coming down Lucas Valley Road," said Lucasfilm in its letter. "None of their fears materialized."
The company insists that Skywalker has been an exemplary neighbor and asset to the community, preserving 5,000 acres of woods and fields, establishing an 11-mile hiking trail, restoring a pond, helping wildlife to thrive, and providing aid to the local fire and rescue squads, not to mention creating hundreds of jobs.
It's still unclear how the community will react to the housing plan for Grady Ranch. Mary Feller said she believes the community will have no objection. Peters, on the other hand, expects a fight.
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